Alternative Word for “Pandemic?”

So, we’ve got a Pluto situation.  We’ve got scientifically defined terminology (“planet,”  “pandemic” ) which *technically* applies to a phenomenon, but for whatever reason, creates a problem with the *general public* and their understanding of that terminology.  

Now, the scientific community tends to be very careful about what it chooses to understand about what certain definitions actually mean and what phenomenon said definitions apply to.

However, the general public’s understanding, however fuzzy, will in most cases, have a much greater practical impact. So much so, that it’s easier for the scientific community to update its definitions, rather than trying to to get the general public to shed their fuzzy, but practical, understanding.

Planet – n. – one of the nine things that orbit the sun, as seen on all the classic posters on the walls of our schools
Pandemic – n. –  we’re all gonna die from the plague

Both of those definitions are, of course, not exactly correct.

PlutodumbassdogIn the first case, the general public’s understanding came first. The scientific community had to play catch up once it started delving into the solar system’s junkyard, the Kuiper Belt and beyond, and found a big methane snowball named Eris, initially named Xena after the Warrior Princess, who happens to be 27% larger than Pluto.

In the second case, the scientific community created a perfectly clear definition, and the general public understood it fully, together with certain strong historical examples.  Now it turns out that we’ve got a virus — Swine Flu, H1N1, H1B Visa, call it what you want — that technically matches the definition, but is still within the threshold of “bad stuff that circulates around the world, but like ‘Deal or No Deal,’ it will eventually pass” as opposed to the “seal the doors, get me my shotgun and canned tuna, we’re in for a long winter.” 

Here’s a great article on this conundrum of strict-definitions-versus-general-understandings:

 Some excerpts:

“If you apply the current definition of phase 6 mechanically to the current global epidemiological situation, it’s difficult for (the World Health Organization) not to raise the alert,” said Shigeru Omi… “If you announce that we are at phase 6 without any Holbein-deathqualification, it gives a wrong impression that there are any many people dying every day. That’s a challenge.”

(…)WHO was asked by health ministers… last month to consider disease severity among broader pandemic determinants. The word pandemic alone may cause people to panic, disrupting businesses and economies


Adding a severity scale will give… leeway to raise the alert again if the new swine flu virus, called H1N1, becomes more deadly or if another threat emerges, said Peter Sandman, a New Jersey risk-communication consultant whose client list includes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WHO.


Basically, scientists would like to say that we’re in a pandemic, without the panic.   So… maybe we can just call it a pandem

By the way, I just love the fact that there is such a thing as a risk-communication consultant

Between epidemics, pandemics, outbreaks, waves, upsurges and scourges, we’re running out of words to characterize the exact nature of our current situation.

My suggestion: hurricane-or-virus-you-decideLet’s create something similar to the “Category 1-5” system that we use with Hurricanes, to cover the spread of global infectious diseases. As disease monitoring improves, our view of it will parallel that of weather monitoring… and forecasting. flu-storm-dropletOh, and while we’re at it, let’s take my old idea of mapping people’s colds in real-time (which was adequately tackled by others — the subject of another blog post), and create a system of having people mail-in their kids’ snot-filled handkerchiefs to the local CDC facility for RNA testing. This way, we can get a genome-level tracking of communicable disease. 

So where does all this leave us, in the meantime? 

As far as I’m concerned the  H1N1 influenza virus is currently a Category 2 Pandemic.

..whatever that means.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on June 4, 2009, in Jargon. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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